Woodland Indian Women´s Shift



Early in the history, Woodland Indian women wore buckskin shirts as described by Lafitau or went simply bare breasted. During 18th century were white, brown or checqued linen shirts widely used by both men and women. Not only shirts, but sometimes also shifts are mentioned in written sources, for example in traders records in Huron mission. Priest Chauchetire mentiond in 1682 women in mission wearing chemises with neck slits (during 17th century, both shirts and shifts could have neck slit) over petticoats, reaching only to knees. Unfortunately, French do not distincts "shift" and "shirt" so we can not tell what were they acually wearing, but in case of shirt particular length should not been mentioned, so I guess shifts.

There are few pictures of Woodland Indian women possibly wearing shifts - but it could also be remodeled shirt or jacket like piece of clothing. Some shift are in Baron of Lahontan´s "New Voyages to North-America", books published in very early 1700´s and recording what he have seen during his long stays with Native American Tribes. Illustrations vary from edition to edition, but in courting and marriage scene we can see few women wearing garment with wide neckline, slightly transparent, with both long and short sleeves - possibly shift tucked into skirt.

Mémoires de l'Amérique septentrionale ou la suite des voyages de Mr le Baron De Lahontan..., 1704.

New voyages to North-America by Lahontan, Louis Armand de Lom d'Arce, baron de,first published 1703, detail from reprint

There is a German depiction of people from Detroit including two Native American women wearing short wide skirts and possibly white and yellow (light brown?) shifts.

Inhabitants of Detroit, 1779, detail.

Probably the best picture of woman in shift is 18th century portrait of Abenaki couple. Female is wraped in blanket and we can clearly see wide, possibly slightly gathered neckline, sleeves to elbows (rolled up or with cuffs), and bottom hem reaching to knees.

City of Montreal Records Management & Archives, Montreal, Canada.

I tried to recreate shift, that could be worn by Native American women in Eastern Woodlands during 18th century. Mostly I did follow instructions given by Sharon Burston, but made few changes. At first, I did carefully choose medium weight and only slightly bleached linen to be sure it will not be transparent. Also, for sake of decency I intended make neckline rather higher than usual (but I failed and made it too wide and low, as many others did). The most important alternation I made was length - most shifts were reaching well below knees, but in this case, whole skirt should be hidden, so I made it only to mid-thights and left lower hem raw, looking like torn out (that is what Native American woman should do, I suppose). So I ended with shift following European fashion, but suitable for Indian women too.

Wearing shortened shift over shirt, sleeves rolled up.

HSM 2017 Challenge #12: Special Occasion

Make something for a special event or a specific occasion, or that would have been worn to special event or specific occasion historically. In this case it was made for Woodland Indian outdoor event.

What the item is: shift

Fabric/Materials: medium weight slightly bleached linen

Pattern: based upon Sarah Burnston

Year: mid 18th century

Notions: waxen brown linen thread

How historically accurate is it? may be a lot (handsewn, period pattern and sewing techniques) but may be not much (if my research went into false deduction)

Hours to complete: about 14 hours during 7 months

First worn: today for photoshoot

Total cost: 21$




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